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second-best since Cantor

Category: roundup

Irreal Life Top 10, February 2023.

Focusing on the mundane this month, with the sublime never all that far off, as you’d maybe expect from the title of this recurring ‘feature.’ –wa.

  1. Kailh Copper vs Silver. In mechanical keyboard land it’s important to carefully choose your keyswitches, which determine much of the ‘hand feel’ of the board. After trying Cherry MX Browns — a little stiff for me — I picked up two sets of Kailh switches: tactile Copper (a noticeable tactile ‘bump’ between touching/actuating and bottoming out) and linear Silver (no bump, ideal for gaming etc). The nominal actuation force and key travel are the same for both, but they feel completely different: though the Coppers are noticeably lighter to the touch than the Cherry Browns, they’ve still got that chunky I’m Really Typing feeling that’s part of the core appeal of the mechanical kb; meanwhile the Silvers are so light they go off when you breathe on them. I use the Silvers at home and have the Coppers in the keyboard I bought for work (reimbursement pending). The differences are instructive and, for the kind of fetishist I’ve evidently become, weirdly exciting.
  2. Wallis Buddhist translations. Glenn Wallis’s translation of the short collection of sutras/suttas called the Dhammapada — subtitle: ‘Verses on the Way’ — is one among increasingly many and the best I’ve read, graceful and clear. His collection of Basic Teachings of the Buddha in translation is even better, and certain thoughtful interpretive choices (e.g. his shift in translation of dukkha from ‘pain’ to ‘unease’) open up the latter text in subtly profound ways. But better than his translations are his notes and reading guides, which together constitute a parallel Buddhism 101 that illuminates existing scholarship without ditching the practical for the esoteric. That Wallis has since left ‘straight’ Buddhism behind doesn’t in any way devalue this rigorously welcoming work; as with Robert Graves’s Greek Myths, the ‘primary’ text is the whole slightly mad thing, and I’m grateful for its weird truth-telling.
  3. Sigil and mandala. From my notes, which may or may not reside in a zettelkasten: “Sigil work [making a diagram from e.g. the nonrepeating lettershapes of a written statement of desire, then ‘energizing’ it by thinking hard about it while e.g. jacking off] is about intensely focused engagement with an iconic representation, not so as to ‘do magic,’ but to radically transform your attention in accordance with your intention. The outcome is the same as for any magic: an alternate [not solely post-orgasmic] form of seeing-as. … The difference between sigil magic and mandala practice is one of degree(s). Different timescale, different mode of focusing, different relationship to desire (none of the explosive expression of sigilization), but closely related, and potentially mutually reinforcing. … Crucially, both sigil and mandala work are in a certain sense ‘aesthetic’ experiences — though you might say the latter is a deliberate cultivation and the former a purgation. Earth/water and fire/air. … TODO: Think about the metaphoric role of entropy in magical purgation. Its link to emptiness/spaciousness. Well, if we weren’t hippie dipshits before…”
  4. 76 Patrons. One of the best-loved supplements for the early (indeed primitive) Traveller science-fiction roleplaying game is this short 1980 compendium of ready-to-run ‘patron encounters’ following a simple template: a contact, a job offer, a paycheck, some complications, and a d6 table of twists and answers to the question of What’s Really Going On. Pound for pound, one of the most useful gamebooks ever published, its plots varied and the simple prose keeping the imaginative space wide open for the Referee. The ‘lack of style’ comes to feel like a show of respect, like the book and writer Loren Wiseman know how hard it is to run an improvisatory campaign, have been there before, and know just how to help.
  5. The Fire Next Time. Lives up to its title and reputation right away, but in the climactic sequence — as Baldwin grows uncomfortable with his long conversation with the evil piece of shit Elijah Muhammad, acknowledging the Nation of Islam’s appeal and pull while rejecting its implied criticisms of his own urbane way of life — it surpasses the reductive identitarian reading that’s rapidly become bourgeois orthodoxy. An astonishing work.
  6. The Banshees of Inisherin. I’ve seen Irish viewers criticize its Oirishness, which is fair, as well Irish-British writer-director McDonagh’s weird treatment of the Irish civil war as something inexplicably distant from the seemingly bucolic life of the island. Very well — but this stagey film may as well have been set in the same nonplace as Waiting for Godot, its allegory is so broad and its story so tightly focused on darkly absurd central conflict. Banshees isn’t as good a time as cult-favourite In Bruges, too cruel, but it’s the better film and the more emotionally mature, even if its pseudoprofundity confirms McDonagh as a minor writer with a knack for dialogue. Bit of a dilettante too, maybe. Farrell and Gleeson do their beautiful double act — is Colin Farrell, seemingly a sweetly decent guy with a sound head on his shoulders, our most underappreciated great actor? — but the finest moment of Banshees is Barry Keoghan and Kerry Condon’s scene by the lake, with that one heartbreaking line. A very fine film, but not, I think, destined to become a ‘classic.’
  7. Brooklyn 99. OK, you win. The middle seasons of this middlebrow middleweight are so consistently enjoyable, in their way, that the collapse of the final season into pseudopolitics feels less like a shame and more like a sin. (Bonus: in the moments when they let Stephanie Beatriz do something closer to her real voice, you see how good she actually is; in the moments when they let Andy Samberg try to ‘act,’ you see how far he had to go (with the writers’ help) to be more than the Jerry Seinfeld of the cast.)
  8. Phil and Friends, April 1999. Phil Lesh’s first shows after a life-threatening illness and transplant were an extraordinary moment for the ‘jam band’ community: half of Phish (Trey and Page) joined stepped in to join Lesh, guitarist-ally Steve Kimock, and drummer John Molo in a supergroup for three nights at the Warfield, uniting Deadheads with younger heads and starting to build a bridge between first- and subsequent-generation improvisatory rock musics. They opened the 15 April show with a 34-minute ‘Viola Lee Blues’ that was worth the night’s ticket cost all on its own, then went deep and stayed there (with help from welcome guest and den mother Donna Jean). The final night’s setlist really does open Dark Star > It’s Up to You, Days Between > Dark Star > My Favorite Things, with a 20+ minute Terrapin > Down with Disease at the show’s center and an all-time great Morning Dew at the climax. Lesh is in fine form, Anastasio might be at his career peak, but the whole thing is Zero cofounder Steve Kimock’s coming-out party — this triumphant run introduced what Phil called Kimock’s ‘antigravity guitar’ to the national audience, his passionate melodies weaving through Anastasio’s virtuosic second-lead matrices like air and earth. It’s a shame they haven’t paired again, though Kimock’s subsequent career has been hit-and-miss. (Fans of his performances with Phil will enjoy KVHW and the perfectly named Marijuana Jazz Band.)
  9. Silverview. John Le Carré’s posthumous novel, largely finished at his death a couple of years ago, is a sweet slim valedictory in the mode of A Legacy of Spies, his 2017 farewell to Smiley. Silverview feels like a farewell to everything, though that’s a common theme with Le Carré. Again it’s aging cold warriors looking back on the damage they’ve caused — this time the traumatic wound is inflicted in Bosnia, evoked as distant background rather than fully imagined setting — but this minor book contents itself with personal rather than political accounting. There’s a surprise ending too, quiet and sweet and slightly clunky, as if the master didn’t quite want (or know how) to end on such a hopeful note. I loved that and the rest of this muted autumn novel, which I read in a sitting. (Somewhat against my will and expectations, I recommend reading his son’s afterword before proceeding to the story itself.)
  10. Condensed Chaos. Phil Hine is one of our most humane occult writers, a real model for me, which might be why I’d avoided going cover-to-cover through any of his books before last month. This work, along with recent essay collection Hine’s Varieties, marks him as a lucid, sane, and empathetic practitioner and theorist of magic — two rare things — plus funny, which might be rarest of all in the po-faced world of occult bullshit. The remarkable thing about Condensed Chaos isn’t its accessibility or breezy tone, though, but rather Hine’s excellent pedagogical approach. Beginning with DRAT (discipline, relaxation, attention, transformation) and working his way slowly toward step-by-step instructions for invoking particular ‘chaos servitors,’ he lays out a program of magical self-inquiry and -transformation which foregrounds the practical (Sorcery) but acknowledges, as responsible adults must, that it’s all fundamentally an oblique approach to self-refashioning and imaginative exploration. His candor, pragmatism, and good humour serve a method that takes the Path (but not itself) seriously. And his worked examples of ‘pathworking’ are clear as day. Well, here’s how good this book is: it made me want to do magic in a group of committed practitioners. This is of course madness, but there’s a method to that too.

Late music.

Once I dug music. Hastily I scribbled:

alt-J, An Awesome Wave

Writerly synth-touched indie pop, its cinematic sweep heightened not undercut by judicious editing and structurework, in a mood of whimsical British archaism (incl. wickerman vocal harmony!) familiar to fans of early Genesis, Riddley Walker, A Clockwork Orange. Expressions of love and lust are (im- or I really mean ‘imp-‘)purely metaphorical here: ‘Dissolve me,’ ‘Let’s tessellate,’ and ‘I’ll eat you whole,’ say, pointing toward their next album’s ‘Lick you like a crisps packet.’ Increasingly I’m drawn to that sort of bent expression, choosing to believe it is intended as truth rather than cleverness. Yes, that’s what love feels like: dissolving, devouring, tessellation, sometimes licking. The drummer’s incredible which means they sound good, but they think good too, which you can’t fake.

Caterina Barbieri, Ecstatic Computation

The album revolves around the creative use of complex sequencing techniques and pattern-based operations to explore the artefacts of human perception and memory processes by ultimately inducing a sense of ecstasy and contemplation. Computation is turned from being a formal, automatic writing technique into a creative, psychedelic practice to generate temporal hallucinations.

This is a profoundly stupid and embarrassing thing for someone to be paid to write, or indeed allowed to write; on the other hand, Ecstatic Computation begins with one of the greatest pieces of electronic music I’ve ever heard, ‘Fantas,’ which sounds like a computer struggling to get over the death of a lover, and if Barbieri only approaches that astonishing height one more time (on ‘Pinnacles of you’), that’s nothing to sneeze at. Half this tomography-as-album merits absolute undisturbed attention, meaning it’s almost certainly better than whatever other bullshit you or I listened to today — its Artistic pretension notwithstanding. Put it this way: ‘Fantas’ was enough to get me to buy a couple of her albums psych-unseen, and I’m glad I did. But this one’s otherworldly.

Les McCann, Invitation to Openness

The most obviously-a-1972-fusion-album album you’ll ever hear, a mix of everything else ‘kozmigroov’ in those very good years…but I’m damned if it isn’t a fantastic psych-jazz-soul specimen, biting the right rhymes from the right crews and featuring lots of wandering Yusef Lateef sax and McCann’s finger-lickin’ Rhodes playing. As always, McCann stays rooted in the blues even when lighting out for the nebulae; the result is an unusually soulful take on the extended funk grooves that drove so many of his peers (particular white tyros) to abstraction and repetition. Which means this is actually a strong candidate to be your favourite fusion album, if you’re the sort who requires such a thing. Me, I love it. Use protection while listening if you don’t wanna get impregnated with a very groovy alien baby.

John Clark, Faces

ECM distilled: French horn, marimba, cello, Jon Christensen on drums. The best thing about this album is the glacial approach of the opening ambient/addled diptych ‘The Abhà Kingdom,’ and the second best thing is that it’s followed in my iTunes library by Trane’s Africa/Brass, meaning after Clark’s extremely civilized horn fades out the next thing I hear is Reggie Workman and Art Davis circling each other on bass as the yowling madness of ‘Africa’ sets in. The third best thing about Faces is its delicate nighttime atmosphere, which the players craft and cultivate and sustain over 52ish minutes of haunting chamber-jazz. Faces has never ‘left the CD player,’ so to speak, in the year and a half since I first heard it. It’s wholly its own thing. Beautiful.

Q3 2019 Listening notes.

Burial, Untrue

Burial has been the inescapable soundtrack to my last year or so: whatever mood I’m in, his music’s melancholic near-sunrise comedown (always down) has suited it, and me. Its low information-density disappointed me on first listen a decade ago, but now I welcome its urbanity, its loneliness, its commitment to that endless moment at night’s end when the city’s invisible keepers wake and rise as the hungry young dissolve into sleep and day, altered tide of neurotransmitters receding, already remembering. Rediscovering Untrue made me curious about Burial’s subsequent EPs, which are all of a piece and which I’m now glad to own. I like some of them better, but Untrue is perfect.

Neil Cicierega, Mouth Sounds / Mouth Silence / Mouth Moods

Can comedy-mashup albums be works of genius? By genius, maybe, but the trouble with comedy-mashup albums is their built-in expiration dates, and Cicierega’s 90s-kid nostalgia was dated by definition when he kicked off this (huh, local to me!) project, never mind the entire genre’s dependence on shock value. Which is only to say that this collection of look-what-I-did,-ma! sonic Lego-creations will drop your jaw a dozen times, so listen while you can, because cleverness ages badly. Even the best mashups have an air of faintly wearying didacticism, so these three albums — the best mashups I’ve heard, for what (nothing) that’s worth — do wear out their welcome. But they’re welcome. Clever boy.

David Darling, various

ECM cello. Beautiful and cold. What do you expect?

Eno/Byrne, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts

Every couple of years I return to this for a few weeks, the best idea I’ve heard, only to run up against all its peripheral aspects: the condescension, repetition, thinness of composition, the phrase ‘vision of a psychedelic Africa.’ Eno and Byrne themselves. Insufferable, frankly. But then there’s the music, which is nearly 40 years old(!) yet still resonates, manages to sound new because it sounds (perhaps means) ancient. The music perfectly articulates the idea — field recordings from a world that never was — and no one’s more surprised than me that an idea could work that way, believe me.

Some book reviews, mid-2019 edition.

I read books; I write about them too, to help me remember.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (H.P. Lovecraft)

Simultaneously a bit of a bore (so many words about the urn taxonomy in Curwen’s catacombs!) and a real page-turner. HPL’s aesthetic signature seems to be flabby anti-exposition promising wonders that you know will never be revealed, but whose lurking absence is the reason for the whole affair — at least for me, the vague hints of Deep Time and dark wisdom are the primary engine of ‘adventurous expectancy.’ It works except when it doesn’t, and as unforgivably repetitive and purple and repetitive as the prose is, you (I) can’t help but wonder with each pageturn if this isn’t the moment when it’s all revealed, when the veil is pierced and the awful truth spoken. Stupid to fall for it, really. The big loser? S.T. Joshi, whose hagiography seems more embarrassing the more Lovecraft you actually read, as you realize he’s celebrating an imaginary philosopher-Lovecraft rather than the often turgid but powerful storyteller who’s actually, y’know, there on the page.

Saga, Book 3 (Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples)

More hijinks, more seemingly superficial oddness eventually revealed as part of a plan to emotionally cripple the reader, and then that ending, which I read alone in our living room and then cried aloud: ‘Oh no…’ If they manage to finish the story it will, I think, prove to be one of the best comics made in my lifetime.

Meditations (Marcus Aurelius)

A wonderful challenge.

Marcus’s pitiless Stoicism demands rejecting the flesh itself, a demand I reject in turn: while the Stoics’ logos certainly works as a hippie-friendly animismetaphor, a creationist metaphysic tends to generate a creationist (i.e. at some level anti-human or anti-agency) ethic; no thanks. We are bodies making minds. Thank God Marcus’s austere philosophy is leavened with a conscientious humanity. I don’t love him, but I admire him; or I admire the effort of will and imagination which this work represents.

(This modern translation makes me want to read an archaic one, which I mean as a compliment.)

Game of Thrones (George RR Martin)

Third time’s a charm — I’d already devoured this unique potboiler twice, the first time maybe in 2002(?) and the reread two or three years ago, before being driven back to the books once again by the godawful final season(s) of the TV show. This is the volume most faithfully adapted by the show, and of the so-far five volumes it’s the lightest on ‘mythology’ and lateral ‘worldbuilding,’ so it’s no surprise that it held fewer surprises than expected and was, frankly, a little thinner than I remembered. Still, after a couple hundred pages of scene-setting it kicked suddenly into fifth gear and became the multifarious whodunit whose memory I’ve treasured for well over a decade.

Martin’s historical consciousness and generous humanism are his strengths — he writes a hell of a scene too, have you heard? — and his books neatly illustrate the grownup principle: ‘There’s no such thing as an unmixed motive.’ True for people, true for nations, and Martin moves effortlessly between those two scales throughout the second half of the book, telling the story of a small group of (ig)nobles whose actions, constrained and compelled and compulsive and at every moment totally believable, will devastate a continent.

The books improve through the third volume before slowing (though perhaps not worsening) during the overambitious Feast/Dance interregnum, but Game of Thrones itself is already an extraordinary work of fantastic-historical storytelling — if not yet the genre-busting work it would shortly become, partly because this first volume is so clearly incomplete. The introduction of Stannis, the wildlings, and the politics of Essos in the second volume lifts the series to another plane, if I remember right; in the meantime Book the First is ‘nothing more’ than a smartly conceived, expertly executed, breathlessly exciting bit of story.

Fare Thee Well: The Final Chapter of the Grateful Dead’s Long, Strange Trip (Joel Selvin and Pamela Turley)

Behind the (Improvised) Music, ex-hippie edition. Turns out the Grateful Dead’s money squabbles and ego trips and sexist wagon-circling are as tiresome as everyone else’s. I skimmed, then read the sections which sympathetically but unenthusiastically treat of Anastasio’s involvement. Selvin’s handling of the poisonously arrogant Lesh is appropriately angry, his Weir-worship sweet but eventually grating. For me the big revelation here is Mickey Hart, who comes off as both smart and wise — a rare combination. I tend to think two rock drummers is one too many, and that the Dead’s peak began (as far as I’m concerned) when Hart stepped away from the band for a few years, but this book has me revisiting those opinions. Maybe Hart wasn’t the problem. Maybe I need to listen more closely in future.

Anyhow: not recommended except as a source of revealing anecdotes. I do wonder what the Deadologists think of this one.

A Clash of Kings (George RR Martin)

Rereading the series in light of the TV show’s end has been a strange and at times disheartening experience: I keep experiencing this odd deflation, whereby I know a plotline will be tied off before the end of the series, its open questions ‘only’ mechanisms of deferral (not to say distraction) to be put aside before the climactic final movement. In broad strokes I know how the story ends: the reunification of the Seven Kingdoms in the form of a feudal proto-republic, in the wake of Daenerys’s descent into madness and destruction of King’s Landing. Maybe Barristan will be there or not, but his counsel will not prevent her ultimate mistake, so the suspense that slowly builds around Barristan (especially in volume 5, as he assumes control of Mereen in her absence) is all but gone. Knowing Ygritte won’t survive the assault on the Wall doesn’t bother me — but knowing that Varys’s scheming will come to nothing genuinely pisses me off. Not the fact that his plans fall apart, but the knowledge.

All this deforms the narrative of Clash of Kings somewhat. Tyrion’s schemes remain thrilling, not least because Martin clearly loves writing him, and the Battle of Blackwater had me literally shaking with excitement despite knowing precisely how it would go — but Tyrion’s doomed love story with Shae has lost some of its sweetness when set against the subsequent events of his life in the East, in the knowledge that it’s only a passing moment in Tyrion’s life. Jaqen is a welcome dose of weirdness, but Arya’s misadventures at Harrenhall feel like a holding action before her two strange violent mentorships (with the Hound and in Braavos). The boy king Joffrey is diminished by knowledge not only of his coming death (in Storm of Swords) but of the deaths of his successors and siblings. Even the slow-growing wildling ‘threat’ is no longer a mystery — I know they end up allies in the war against the Others…

…and of course, the Others (not glimpsed in this volume) will be dealt with in the final movement of the story as well. Knowing they’re defeated doesn’t ‘ruin the books’ at all — did anyone think they were going to win? — but knowing that they won’t be able even to delay the madness that comes to King’s Landing is frustrating. I imagine GRRM has some plans for them, in terms of what precisely they want, how they’ll be stopped. But I imagine, too, that he told Benioff and Weiss that, implementation details aside, the Others will tax the Army of the West (or ‘of Men’ or what have you) before their final confrontation with an ultimately banal human evil in Cersei. It seems that that’s their narrative function, in the end.

And knowing their function is disheartening. That metatextual mystery was/is a key axis of pleasure with these books, for me.

I’m really looking forward to The Winds of Winter, I am. Martin is a gifted writer and ‘worldbuilder’ with a marvelous imagination and a rare talent for quick and vivid characterization, and I loved this book, though the Theon and Bran sections were less compelling than expected/remembered. (I was way more interested in the Daenerys and Sansa chapters this time than I was five years ago, perhaps because I know their transformations will remain key story drivers, perhaps because I’m a bit more grown up myself.) My disappointment in the TV show comes from the knowledge that it only samples Martin’s work, spoiling its mysteries without providing any compensatory pleasures beyond an able and attractive cast. The books don’t disappoint me at all — the disappointment is that they’re not now able to be what they were, for me or George Martin, nor what they might have been.

But look: it’s still a great book, better than the first, heading with sure steps toward the extraordinary, climactic third volume.

Our Life Grows (Ryszard Krynicki)

A collection of poems by a member of the Polish ‘New Wave,’ born in a Nazi camp in 1943, censored and blocked from publication for years of his life. I read this on a train from Zakopane to Warsaw at the end of two weeks in Poland with my family; it was important for me to hear these notes while in that country.

Wry, wounded, furiously angry, always ‘political’ (meaning: with the world as it is). In the end surprisingly tender — the ‘love poems’ to/for/about his wife find an unexpected simplicity and vulnerability. Beautiful and awful, in every sense.

Lords and Ladies (Terry Pratchett)

I laughed, wept, leaned forward in my chair, stayed up late, and missed my mom. The Discworld is one of my favourite places on — well, near — actually quite far from, but let’s not get bogged down here — Earth, and Terry Pratchett is one of my idols: angry, yes, intelligent and curious, a fallible craftsman but masterful storyteller. Most importantly: an unfailingly generous and humane writer and person. His characters are living breathing people. His world is a world.

I’m grateful to have shared both this planet and the other one, the flat one, with him.

I might just begin the next book tonight, you know. I just might.

Night Tripper.

Sometimes I ‘review’ records. –w.

Dr John, Gris-Gris (1968), Babylon (1969), Remedies (1970), The Sun, Moon & Herbs (1971)

Before he died this year, I knew Dr. John only as a somewhat corny figure of ‘bayou’ fun — the idea that he was ever a serious musician, attempting something interesting in his work beyond what I took to be his ‘cultural ambassador’ schtick, never occurred to me. Then the inevitable crop of too-little-too-late celebrations of his passing led me to these early albums, from the period when ‘Dr. John, The Night Tripper’ was a stage character, explicitly defined and named and distinct (as it would later cease to be) from Malcolm Rebennack the man. Fifty years(!) after Gris-Gris kicked off the former session man’s career as a solo artist, nearly 15 years after Katrina, the Doctor’s first batch of LPs now play as experiments in hyperlocal psychedelia, never unaffected (it was a schtick, then) but not compromised or fallen into conventionality either.

Gris-Gris itself is the ‘purest’ presentation of the Night Tripper character, now legible (its original hustling intent notwithstanding) as a more lived-in answer to the era’s too-urbane ‘exotica.’ Whether the production is muddled or ‘vérité’ or what have you is, at this point, immaterial: it sounds like the field recording of voodoo weirdness that it’s pretending to be, cousin to Jobim and Bonfá’s Orfeu Negro soundscape. As a concept album about swamp magic it risks ridiculousness, as a white-dude-with-funky-drums hangout it risks banality — but those drums, I mean god damn. The star of the whole show isn’t Dr. John, it’s the whole show, the enveloping estranging atmosphere, the rhythmic message, and the Doctor’s role here is less singer-songwriter than ringmaster at some ceremony overheard but not quite fully seen.

Babylon, then, is the Doctor’s encounter with then-coalescing rock convention, a backwoods Valentine Michael Smith emerging into the daylit world, courting disaster with lines like ‘There ain’t no need / For all this greed.’ The opening track links the more open-throated Babylon to the hermeticism of Gris-Gris — the Night Tripper has made it to the street corner — and the sound remains too strange for the microphones to catch. You can pair tracks like ‘Glowin” with Andrew Hill’s extraordinary Lift Every Voice (or for that matter some Captain Beefheart!) and hear a mysterious continuity. But already Rebennack seems to be stretching the limits of the Night Tripper character, wanting to go further than the headdresses and stage show (or at least to score a radio hit, which would take another couple of years). To move from character to persona to personality, you might say. Babylon is full of odd rhythms and dense sonic fog but it’s clear we’re not going back to the swamp; good as the album is, it’s a little bit caught between two worlds.

In Remedies, though, the Night Tripper is out in the streets, speaking not only for his hometown (remember that Gris-Gris was a Hollywood production) but to it — less tense, less weird, more at home. NOLA-in-exile evocation and modern psych-rock language are more fully integrated, with an assured studio sound. ‘Loop Garoo’ could be a Joe Cocker song, which is to say it’s a Mac Rebennack song more than a Night Tripper song, which is to say the conceptualist phase of Dr. John’s career can’t go on forever. On the other hand, the last 17 minutes of Remedies play like a reunion of the Gris-Gris crew, bringing the old-bones vibe (excuse me: concept) of that album ‘up to date,’ so to speak. All of which is to say it’s a fine, odd album.

And The Sun, Moon & Herbs kicks off with one of Dr. John’s best tunes, his setting of ‘Black John the Conqueror,’ while ‘Craney Crow’ reprises ‘Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya’ in a less hermetic register, signifying the complete integration of the theatrical Night Tripper concept into an identity no less coherent for being more or less ‘real’ (or at least realistic). It even cracked the Top 200. Mick Jagger’s here, and that Clapton fellow on guitar, but Dr. John himself is now the star rather than the ringleader; after this he’d join forces with Allen Toussaint and the Meters to make altogether friendlier Crescent City funk/soul/blues, and while that’s a great idea — anything involving the Meters is a great idea — and Rebennack’s instinctive communalism does keep ego at bay, I’m less compelled by the rest of Dr. John’s career than by this unique run of albums. Entertained, sure, at times moved. But it’s the weird singularity that draws me back to the swamp, the nighttime.

Some lately-reads.

‘Ill Met in Lankhmar’ (Fritz Leiber)

Pure pleasure — and surprise at the (scattered) moments of heightened emotional intelligence that this boys’-own-adventure unexpectedly displays. The easy fellowship between Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser is the point: they deal with the creeping sickness of Newhon by striking a devil-may-care attitude, which (along with their swords) is their primary problem-solving tool. Satisfying, and clarifying for the D&D-curious. Not exactly ‘progressive,’ if that’s a useful metric for you.

Fever Dream (Samanta Schweblin)

An hour’s intense, unsettling read. I spent the last 30 (very sparse) pages leaning forward over the book as if doing so would bring me more quickly to the end — desperate for both revelation and escape; it’s no spoiler to say this little fairy tale offers just one of those things.

The ‘point,’ if good books need or indeed have a point, seems to be tonal rather than didactic: parallel strands of parental, ecological, psychological, and paranormal (not to mention literary-formal, which is to say epistemological) unease, expertly woven together. The word ‘hallucinated,’ casually dropped into the story toward its end, hits like a fist.

I must say, I’d’ve overlooked or misunderstood its darkest hues before my son was born. But that’s my limitation, not the story’s.

Yes, there are plenty of ‘genre’ novels that engage in similar exercises — I was reminded of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach right at the beginning and throughout — but this book has a dark beauty all its own. Expertly done and highly recommended…especially to the parents of young children, who’ll enjoy an extra helping of anxiety. (xposted to Amazon)

Four Quartets (T.S. Eliot)

I hope I’ll be rereading these poems for the rest of my life.

Faust, Part One (tr. Randall Jarrell)

Faust, like Dante’s Inferno, seems like one of those things I’ll just never connect with — though Walpurgisnacht, even in Jarrell’s weird translation, attained a vivid strangeness from time to time. (Recommend a better translation?)

Beneath the Underdog (Charles Mingus)

Furiously devotional and profane, like Mingus’s music, but also much less interesting, especially past page ~150, as it sinks in firstly that this really is a curious beat novel about a sex-addled pimp rather than a memoir in any but the loosest sense, and secondly that Mingus was a compellingly weird writer rather than a great one — whereas he was both and more on bass and as bandleader. Took me a long time to get through the middle because I was waiting for the real story to start, not realizing that furious devotion and profanity was an essential story for a black genius in the 1970s. I don’t want to reread it, but I want to want to. Maybe I might. Meantime there’s his imperishable musical art, which I’ve spent 20 years learning from and will never stop.

Salem’s Lot (Stephen King)

Unsettling. Over the last 100 pages the mood of oppressive loneliness, distrust, and intimate estrangement became both unbearable and achingly familiar. Jerusalem’s Lot reminds me in so many ways of the village where I grew up; King makes up for his sentence-to-sentence shortcomings with an uncanny knack for depicting small-town life down to its tiniest details. This is an excellent novel in some senses. Execrable dialogue from the leads (better from the day players, who don’t need to bear Dracula parallels), but the ‘plot’ is fascinating: a bitterly cynical, almost satirical take on what it’d be like if Dracula camed to Shittown USA. (King’s answer: The town would die a little faster than it already was.)

I liked it. It creeped me the hell out. King has got something.

Some game reviews and recommendations for Christmas.

Christmas shopping? Some games to think about:


Progenitor of the ‘deckbuilder’ genre and, like designer Donald Vaccarino’s even more abstract followup Kingdom Builder, essentially a kind of dynamic multiplayer puzzle. Players begin each with a barebones deck of cards, mostly providing money, and use that money to buy from an always-available common pool of more interesting ‘kingdom cards’ — which in turn grant additional money, actions (card plays), and buys per turn. Purchased cards go into the discard pile; when your draw pile is empty, your discard pile gets shuffled and replaces it. At some point you start buying victory points, which clot the deck but are the only way to win.

Yes, it can be ‘simultaneous solitaire’ at times, but that mostly manifests in groups of uneven skill.

Dominion‘s basic rules are quite simple, but each spread of ten kingdom cards presents a variety of strategic possibilities, and if you include even a couple of the many expansions, the range of kingdom spreads is for all practical purposes inexhaustible. (The expansions range from pitch-perfect to game- and mind-breaking, but every single one is worth getting.) Vaccarino’s core design takes the epochal innovation of Magic: The Gathering — streamlined tactical card play using custom decks built away from the table — and essentially ‘gamifies’ deckbuilding, making a 30-minute competitive game out of that away-from-table activity.

Dominion is a work of genius; everyone who’s ever had to sit through a game of Monopoly must try it.

Settlers of Catan

The game that kicked off the ‘eurogame’ craze and today’s boardgame renaissance is secretly a brilliant do-over of Monopoly with considerably greater strategic depth, more meaningful p2p trading, and (as a result of the trading and resource-generation mechanics) no downtime. Dead simple to learn — as with Carcassonne, the core game is streamlined enough that the kids’ version is unnecessary — it’s still one of the friendliest introductions to modern boardgames, but the random/asymmetrical setup and steadily ratcheting tension give it plenty of replay value for any but the most pedantically analytical gamers. Its ‘kingmaker’ problem, and the high likelihood of untutored players shooting themselves in the foot with a bad opening play, now mark Settlers as an imperfect game, and among boardgame nerds it gets less play than it used to. But ignore jaded gamers who say it’s no good. It deserves its reputation.

Greedy Greedy Goblins

Generally fast-paced simultaneous tile-placement for humans 6 and up, recommended for families who enjoy cartoonishly stressful play situations.

Designer Richard Garfield’s basic idea is clever: each goblin (player) draws one facedown tile at a time from a common pool, looks at it, then adds it (still facedown) to one of several mines. Repeat, as impulsively or carefully as she likes. At some point in this process, she uses coloured discs to claim up to three mines, which then no longer receive tiles. With all mines claimed, they’re scored: points for every gem tile in the mine, double points for gems matching your goblin’s colour; some tiles give special power cards to use while scoring; one stick-of-dynamite tile doubles point value of mine, two sticks triples it…and the third blows up the mine, yielding a total of -5 points. First goblin to 100 points wins.

So we’ve got bluffing, a mildly harrowing push-your-luck mechanic with incomplete information for all, some quick mental calculations to do in a rapidly changing environment… Some rounds GGG is a slow-moving game of careful moves and countermoves, sometimes it’s a frenzied free-for-all. You’ll have much more fun if you enjoy seeing plans (fail to) survive contact with the interfering dunderheads around you (cf. Space Alert, below), and you’ll do better if you keep your head a little, but there’s something to be said for bringing a little anarchy into the other goblins’ lives by spreading your tiles willy-nilly throughout everyone’s mines.

Garfield’s recent career turn has been interesting — King of Tokyo and King of New York are consistently fun little lightweight/flyweight games, respectively, aimed at kids but rewarding for adults. GGG is in the same class as King of Tokyo, but the realtime simultaneous-action approach opens it up to players with less taste for strategy while specifically testing everyone’s sang-froid during an ongoing crisis — and their visual information-processing speed.

Summoner Wars

A fun sort of customizable chess++ game with short playing time and a gorgeous core mechanic.

You’re trying to capture your opponent’s Summoner, a powerful back-row piece (card, actually), by summoning fighters to the gridded board; the fighters hit or shoot, and have special effects and hit points. Ho hum, but summoning cards takes magic, which you generate in one of two ways: killing the other guy’s cards, or discarding from your hand…which means every single turn of the game presents you with interesting, tense choices, and the more you strategize, the better you’ll get. The summoning mechanic is the game’s heart (it’s right there in the title) and the source of its reputation.

Combat is simple — roll Nd6 where N’s the unit’s attack value, each die ≥3 is a hit, run out of hit points and you’re dead — but because you can only move and attack with three units a turn (you might have six or eight on the board at once), the nearly abstract gameplay does generate some pleasant tension. And because each player’s deck is small, there’s always the looming threat of simply running out of reinforcements and needing to, say, kill your own soldiers to generate that final burst of magic.

Fans of Summoner Wars insist that the deckbuilding aspect is part of the game’s appeal, but I gotta say, I’ve never felt the slightest urge to customize my army.

My 7-year-old son and I get a kick out of this one — we were both surprised last time by how quickly it played — but Summoner Wars isn’t a top-shelf game in our household despite its streamlined elegance. On one hand, the entire ruleset fits on an index card(!); on the other, there’s a lot of pointless theme slathered on top of what’s basically an elegant abstract strategy game, setting up quite the wrong expectations. It’s not a wargame! The existence of Mage Wars, a thematically similar but totally mechanically distinct customizable card/board game, further confuses the issue, as searching online for this game will turn up unhelpful comparisons.

Best enjoyed as a featherweight abstract game with oddly representational art rather than any kind of tactical combat thing — and if you come to it with the right expectations, Summoner Wars holds some lovely surprises. This might just be a great game.

N.B. You have several ways in to Summoner Wars: starter sets, the Master Set, the Alliances edition. If you’re dipping your toe in, grab a starter set. If you like it, pick up one of the two big boxes, and some ‘second summoner’ expansions on clearance. You should be able to find secondhand copies of most of the cards online.

Magic: The Gathering

Certainly the most important and quite likely the best tabletop game idea anyone’s had since Dungeons & Dragons — dead-simple card play using homebuilt custom decks, where each card breaks the rules in ever-more-complex ways — and after a quarter-century its worldwide playerbase is still growing(!!) as the design continues to evolve healthily. At its best, Richard Garfield’s first collectible card game offers the definitive CCG experience: an all-time classic game that’s also a license to print money.

About that money, though…

…at high levels, paper/rock/scissors deck matchups and the publisher’s exploitative random-blind-boosters economic model wash away the simple pleasures of beginner play. In this age of gaming plenty, it seems to me that marketing M:TG to teenagers (kids) is unethical. And incredibly, M:TG isn’t even Garfield’s best card game — his sophomore effort Netrunner, in its ‘limited’ incarnation Android: Netrunner, is the deeper, more interesting game, even with its comparatively limited cardpool. Everyone should play Magic: The Gathering at some point, the same way everyone should hear the Rolling Stones. But I can’t in good conscience recommend that anyone invest real money in it. There’s a reason they call it a ‘lifestyle game,’ after all. If you like human beings, you’re better off getting good at chess. Or Netrunner, come to that.


Another classic eurogame that serves as a fine introduction to the field. Very very simple: add square tiles orthogonally to a map; add meeples (‘guys’) from your limited pool if possible to claim features like roads and castles; retrieve meeples and score when features are completed. The larger the map feature, the more you score, but the longer it takes — and unfinished features (castles left open, cloisters never surrounded by fields) are penalized at scoring time.

It’s not the deepest game, indeed it’s suitable for bright 5-year-olds, but there’s a strategic angle: knowing which features to commit to, which to steal (by joining separate castle regions, say), whether/when to pursue short-run plans or make risky longterm investments in the ‘farm stakes.’ Strong players will outclass beginners nearly every time, but there’s enough luck to keep everyone interested; our family’s games tend to be close-fought affairs. The many expansions aren’t all equally essential, and some (e.g. Princess/Dragon) destructively or chaotically alter the elegant core game.

If you’re looking for a first ‘German-style’ board game for your family, this is an evergreen choice.

Space Alert

Difficult to describe, absolutely maddening to play, Space Alert has provided some of my best gaming experiences of the last several years. It’s an extremely hectic multiplayer cooperative simultaneous role-selection puzzle which delivers randomized realtime challenges by way of sound recordings, and…

Your best bet might be to watch a video, frankly, though your actual best bet is just to buy the game (it’s wonderful) and play it without knowing what you’re doing.

Space Alert is secretly quite a short game. You place your worker in one of six rooms laid out in a rectangle, representing the compartments of a spaceship. In each room is a task to be done — a valve to periodically turn, a key to regularly punch, lasers to shoot if aliens come near. You’re dealt a set of cards with actions on them, and using those cards, you choose in advance what you’ll do during each of 12 turns: walk east or west, take the elevator up or down, perform a task in your room. A certain number of routine tasks need to be accomplished in those 12 turns.

The entire game is just this — planning 12 actions. It takes about seven minutes.

Meanwhile, your teammates are doing the same, just calmly laying out their day.

Well, not calmly. During those seven minutes, an mp3 is playing. Sometimes it plays static, during which no talking is aloud. Sometimes a voice announces that at turn X, aliens will arrive, and someone will need to shoot them, and each turn they’ll press in and damage the ship if they’re not immediately dealt with. Sometimes the voice announces a malfunction to be fixed, an infection onboard ship, a new batch of cards to be dealt to each player… And even as you plan you see your carefully laid plans unravel, slowly at first, then with a kind of nightmarish inevitability, as the web of things-to-do grows and tangles and ends up a glorious mess.

But that’s only half the game — the playing bit.

Then, when the mp3 stops playing, you execute the 12 steps you’ve laid out, and you and your friends get to see how you’ve failed — slowly, clearly, the specific moments at which your plans were undone are revealed to you. And at this point there’s nothing you can do about it.

In other words, it’s realtime Pandemic, the perfect gamification of crisis-management, and if your group has a healthy social dynamic and one natural leader you’ll be just fine

I can’t recommend Space Alert highly enough.

Star Realms

A superb little $15 deckdbuilder from the local boys at White Wizard Games, emphasizing constant player interaction (combat!) and clever card synergies. Instead of Dominion‘s ten piles of cards, there’s a row of six singletons, replenished after each purchase from a deck of 120. (This was Vaccarino’s original idea for Dominion, actually, and is the core mechanic of designer Rob Dougherty’s earlier, uglier Ascension deckbuilder.)

We have two kinds of card: ships and bases. Cards generate money or combat, thin out your deck, alter the pool of available buys, or give you additional hit points; ships produce an effect and then get discarded, while bases stick around to block attacks until destroyed. Many cards can be scrapped (removed from game) for additional effects, and crucially, each ship and base has a faction (suit), which generates ‘ally effects’ when two or more cards of a faction are played. Each faction has a distinct personality and implied playstyle; knowing whether and how to mix and match is an important skill element.

You can learn Star Realms in five minutes or less, but it’ll take months to tease out its subtleties. I’ve now played close to a thousand games, mostly online, and consider it one of the most reliably fun games I’ve ever played.

The expansions — sold on the ‘limited card game’ model at $4/pack — are almost uniformly excellent. Better yet, the Colony Wars game offers a replacement core set at $15 MSRP, adding a single mechanic and generally dialing the intensity of the game up a notch. You can easily mix the two sets, along with any combination of expansions, and no two games will be exactly alike. The original is the place to start, though: perfectly balanced, an instant-buy for anyone looking for a quick filler game.

Lately books briefly books.

I read books, and then that morning or the next I write about them. This exercise has become important to me (much like biking, actually), and since 2014 I’ve managed to keep up even when I’ve been unable to focus on ‘proper’ writing.

Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino)

Is it possible that this book, by some unfathomable reverse causality, inspired both Amisare and Allworlds after the fact? No matter. I was surprised, in the banally chronological event, by how little I cared about Invisible Cities. Reading Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller in college was one of my peak bookwise experiences — I’d ride the Blue Line to Logan Airport and read in the terminal, back when you could do that sort of thing; Nicole has my copy, which I guess is her copy now — and of course Cosmicomics burrowed into my brain in high school (I borrowed/stole Jeremy Ward’s copy). But I found Invisible Cities cute, which is to say off-putting. My private metric: if I start reading something before bed, but feel the need to bring it into my daylight reading, it’s got something going on. Cities never made it across the gap. Perhaps there’s a mirror-Wally in a mirror-Cambridge superposed on this one, who only reads mirror-Calvino at night, and blah blah blah you see? Calvino has been so thoroughly taken up into all my other reading and writing that I had no need to read Cities, except to prove to myself that (a certain other project of mine) should exist, which I knew already.

The Power of Myth (Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers)

Uncle Joe in guru mode. Inspirational mind-candy. Moyers’s questions are somewhat repetitiously New-Agey, not a term I use lightly; Campbell shows off an admirably wide-ranging intellect. A uniquely flavourful dish served with a large-ish quantity of syrup.

Exercises in Style (Raymond Queneau, tr. Barbara Wright)

Mini-fictions in that vaguely academic midcentury French mode, beloved of a certain kind of intellectual male: the same scene repeated 99 times in different styles, toward a mix of literary and philosophical ends. Not exactly Calvino-esque — he was a fabulist, this is a philosophical/narratological (vs narrative) experiment — but reading this hard on the heels of Invisible Cities was a stark reminder of what/how I used to read twenty years ago, and for the most part no longer do. And my biases aside, the Exercises are genuinely funny and even educational. Certainly they’re a demonstration of the flexibility of written language. Kudos to translator Barbara Wright for doing the impossible with wit and (obvsly) style.

Proof (David Auburn)

It’s nice to see naturalistic contemporary dialogue in the mouths of smart young characters, and the structure is impressive, but if you’re going to do math in drama, you have to get it right and avoid mystefaction and vague abstraction. The math in Proof is generic, like the swordfighting in a bad action picture: auburn dramatizes the central amaaaaaazing achievement by having a character talk at length about how amaaaaaazing it is. (We know one character has ‘a touch of mathematical genius’ because she knows a random mathematical fact. In terms of the math, it’s that kind of play.)

The ‘human drama’ is artfully handled. It’s a clever play. But as it seemed to me to be neither beautiful nor strange — rather, a conventional play that I instantly felt I’d read/seen before — I must say I was disappointed, and am now irritated. Your mileage, as ever, may vary. (My wife liked it.)

SAGA, Book 2 (BKV and Fiona Staples)

Devoured this long-awaited hardcover just before bedtime, hours after it arrived in the mail. Eighteen issues of the same trick as Book 1: in broad terms, Vaughan is telling a small, complicatedly progressive story about a child reckoning with the complicated marriage of her two young parents, with Big Themes (some awfully familiar to readers of the otherwise very different Y: The Last Man) rendered in bold strokes. Staples is painting a psychedelic kitchen-sink space-fantasy with that small story at the center of it. There’s nothing else quite like it in American comics, as far as I know. I love it, I want to know what happens next, it’s obvious BKV likes being a father, and you have to take it for what it is: a madly tragic picaresque and not a contemporary serial drama like Y.

(Pia Guerra contributes two drawings to the hardcover, one depicting an auto-fellating dragon, and I’m reminded that she’s one of my favourite comics artists ever, maybe the best in the business at subtle facial expression. I do miss her work.)

Four things to read.

Not ‘news,’ still timely:

B.R. Myers on North Korean propaganda, internal and external:

It’s an undiplomatic point to make, but the inconvenient truth is that most North Korea-watchers in the United States don’t speak Korean and don’t read Korean. They’re not able to read even the legend on a North Korean propaganda poster. So they, for decades, have had to depend on secondary sources of information, primarily in English. When they read North Korean materials, they have to read the so-called Juche Thought, because the regime has been careful to put this pseudo-ideology, this sham ideology, into English. So when foreigners want to read about North Korean ideology, they have to turn to these books on Juche thought, which really decoy them away from the true ideology.

Juche Thought is a jumble of humanist cliches like “Man is the master of all things.” This fake doctrine has absolutely no bearing on North Korean policymaking. While people are wasting their time trying to make sense of Juche Thought, the regime is propagating this race-based nationalism. Another problem we have in the United States, a little bit, is political correctness, inasmuch as we are uncomfortable attributing racist views to non-white people.

Scott Alexander (Slate Star Codex) on motte-and-bailey arguments:

Post-modernists sometimes say things like “reality is socially constructed”, and there’s an uncontroversially correct meaning there. We don’t experience the world directly, but through the categories and prejudices implicit to our society; for example, I might view a certain shade of bluish-green as blue, and someone raised in a different culture might view it as green. Okay.

Then post-modernists go on to say that if someone in a different culture thinks that the sun is light glinting off the horns of the Sky Ox, that’s just as real as our own culture’s theory that the sun is a mass of incandescent gas a great big nuclear furnace. If you challenge them, they’ll say that you’re denying reality is socially constructed, which means you’re clearly very naive and think you have perfect objectivity and the senses perceive reality directly.

The writers of the paper compare this to a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along…

John Holbo’s (nearly 15-years-old!!) critique of David Frum’s conservatism:

The funny thing about this book is: it isn’t nearly as bad I just made it sound. I don’t think Frum is obsessed with beards or anything, actually. He sometimes seems like a pretty sharp guy. The middle chapters – full of history and policy detail, so forth – are quite cogent. Just the main chapters have problems. Frum has written a book about the need for a reflective, conservative philosophy. And: that’s the one thing he hasn’t got. He just has no clue why he is a conservative, or why being one might be a good idea – or even what ‘conservatism’ ought to mean. Whenever he starts trying to talk about that stuff, his mind just goes blank and he fantasizes about shaving beards and the Donner party.

Daniel Davies’s ‘One Minute MBA,’, which may possess more value-per-word than any other blogpost yet written:

Anyway, the secret to every analysis I’ve ever done of contemporary politics has been, more or less, my expensive business school education (I would write a book entitled “Everything I Know I Learned At A Very Expensive University”, but I doubt it would sell). About half of what they say about business schools and their graduates is probably true, and they do often feel like the most collossal [sic] waste of time and money, but they occasionally teach you the odd thing which is very useful indeed. Here’s a few of the ones I learned which I considered relevant to judging the advisability of the Second Iraq War.

Lately: Maxayn, Grimes, Sinatra.

Maxayn, Maxayn (1972)

Hedonistic funk-soul jams receding, without making any profound impact, into the sonic murk of early 70s Rhodes/sex/cosmos mind-expansion. Because that’s lately been my favourite kind of music, I dig this — especially the two(!) Stones covers, extra-especially ‘What You Want,’ which points up how black the Stones were and definitely weren’t. Illustrative song title: ‘Doing Nothing, Nothing Doing.’ Groovy.

Grimes, Art Angels (2015)

An interesting dance-pop album. The genderiffic piss-take ‘Kill v Maim’ includes the line ‘Italiano mob-star looking so precious,’ which is funny — it was funny when The Sopranos made the same joke — but I’m not sure it’d be as funny, or funny the same way, or at any rate if the same people’d let themselves be seen laughing about it, if the lyric went ‘Africano gang-star…’ Which is one reason I’m more interested in the ‘pop’ than the ‘interesting,’ never mind the (at my age?!) ‘dance.’ Musically…well, it’s an ‘interesting’ ‘dance-pop’ album made by one Canadian weirdo, what do you expect? Jazz? There are kick-drums and handclaps; I prefer jazz. I dig it, though, particularly ‘California’ and ‘Flesh Without Blood’ and ‘Belly of the Beat’ and honestly half the songs on the album…but if the thinkpieces write themselves then you can delete yours and move on to the next thing, which (this being dance-pop) everyone will, sooner than weird smart uncertain little Claire Boucher deserves. Oh, but one more thing first: the Janelle Monae track’s a dud.

Grimes, Visions (2012)

More, um, ‘psych-tronica’-ish? Also more like Devo — and therefore more my style, but I don’t remember a note. Art Angels is, I think, correctly labeled her ‘breakthrough’ album.

Sinatra on Capitol Records (1954-62)

Read this. OK now:

As a kid I loved the movie High Society, which brought together three of the great 20th century singers, Satchmo and Bing and Frank, though I didn’t understand its significance when I first saw it. Here’s a Crosby/Sinatra duet from that film: float on those voices, savour Sinatra’s drunk bit and his obvious affection for his childhood idol, and experience the profound parallax that comes of hearing two ‘crooners’ (the guy who first popularized the style, and the guy who took it further than anyone else) singing so dramatically differently and yet meeting in the middle for the sake of the piece.

This scene’s still a wakeup call for me: to most people my age, Sinatra and Crosby may as well be the same guy. To me, growing up on Broadway soundtracks and wearing out the grooves on a double LP compilation called The Fabulous Fifties and having no adolescent connection to rock counterculture, Sinatra ‘must be one of the newer fellas.’

I’ve been reading Robert Graves’s Greek Mythology and a recent translation of the Poetic Edda, thinking about cultural legacies and what we’ll leave behind when we inevitably pass — thinking too about what to teach my son about ‘America’ in all its forms. And I’ve been listening to Sinatra’s Capitol albums. The ‘American Songbook,’ as it’s quite properly known.

The ‘Sinatra sound’ for modern ears is probably that of his comparatively ‘schmaltzy’ Reprise incarnation — ‘New York, New York,’ ‘My Kind of Town,’ ‘My Way.’ But I’ve come to prefer the comparatively understated swing of his Capitol recordings, working with older material which had and has, crucially, an independent life beyond Sinatra’s own interpretations. Sinatra’s relationship to the standards is that of poet to myth: the moment of the song is always about the moment, communion between singer and listener, but away from status questions the poet/singer’s real work is clearer: honouring the song itself, and the private stories which over time have interwoven with it. Young Sinatra’s famous textual study, his unusual attention not only to prosody but to the stories ‘his’ songs told, helped him avoid the self-aggrandizement which ‘solo’ pop performance often tends to — he knew instinctively what novelists and poets must learn, that specificity is key to universality. Of course he got famous: he looked good and did his homework, even the extra-credit questions.

The book of American standards is our body of myth, capturing a mix of voices (white, black, gay, straight, upper- and lower-class) at a moment of rapid tumultuous integration, reworked and reimagined so many times over the last century that — even fallen from favour as those songs now are — they’re still central to our many ideas of America. The figures evoked in midcentury popular song are as fantastically real to us as Zeus and Odin were to our forerunners in the Mediterranean and Scandinavia, incarnated in performance to confirm their secret presence in the everyday. And our great artists do seem to see themselves, with surprising consistency, in isomorphic terms — even if each artist’s language is very different. Service to something beyond the self, an idea which envelops creator and audience, forerunners and descendants, and which reminds us of both our smallness and our role in holding together the Weave: this idea can be metaphysical (the source, the cosmic vibration, God) or psychological (the Muse, the inner voice, ‘genius’) or historical (the tradition, the songbook, ‘ideas’ as such)…for artists at their peak, it’s always there in one form or another. The metaphor changes, its referent never does.

Beyond the music — he really was one of his century’s great artists — these albums preserve some of America’s ideas of itself. Beneath the voice, a chorus of voices. Here’s one thing I love: he sounds like a guy from a poor neighbourhood in the northeast who’s worked as hard as any well heeled opera singer to master his instrument. He spins a fantasy, knows it, and means it all the same, which is one of my ideas of America — one which I don’t mind teaching my son, which isn’t what I came to this music for but thanks, Mr Sinatra, all the same.

As for the music: you should hear every one of these songs. The worst of them are maybe our greatest singer at his peak. The best of them are national Scripture.